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On the Campaign couch

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Not a funny one, this, I’m afraid, Jeremy. The Jimmy Savile scandal has been truly appalling. It has also started to make me and a few colleagues feel uncomfortable in case we, like those senior BBC managers, are culpable if any of the rumours of improper and historic actions by former staff members are shown to be true. What do you think? And what lessons does the sorry affair give the modern agency management?

Not a funny answer, either.

I’m sorry if I sound like a director-general, but I’ve never been aware of "rumours of improper and historic actions by former staff members". However, you clearly have, and so have your colleagues; so I accept that they existed – and maybe still do.

The lessons seem fairly clear – but difficult to apply in a trade like ours: one that’s proudly undeferential and more careless than many about working hours and dress codes; one where quickness of wit is valued and strict adherence to convention is not; where "characters" are encouraged and pedants are mocked; where all the best stories are of near-misses, of presentations retrieved from the brink by brilliant subterfuge. There’s a kind of nervous delight in our knowledge that we’re challenging the gods of order and discipline and, more often than not, getting away with it. And all, of course, in the legitimate and praiseworthy pursuit of excellence.

In trades like ours, nobody gets brownie points for saying: "Excuse me, Mr Pemberton, but I think you should know that young Briscoe has hung his jacket on my coat peg again." Or "I think you should know that Phil got hammered in the pub last night and headbutted Monty." Or "I think you should know that Mickey’s a serial groper." Or "I think you should know that Phyllis saw Desmond in the back of a car over the weekend – and she’s pretty certain the girl he was with was underage."

There’s a deceptively gradual sliding scale – from improper appropriation of a coat peg to serious allegations of sexual abuse. It’s only in retrospect, and after exposure, that the moment when a critical line got crossed becomes absolutely obvious. And by then, it’s too late.

We like people who are a bit of a lad. We don’t just tolerate the wayward; we take pride in them and derive vicarious pleasure from them. So why be a spoilsport when it’s only a bit of fun? And, anyway, it’s all been going on for yonks.

So these are the lessons for modern agency management. Be acutely aware of the sliding scale, the slippery slope, the thin end of the wedge. Amusing and admirable recklessness can drift imperceptibly into the abuse of others: so always think obsessively and considerately about those on the receiving end.

And always apply the Insight, Newsnight, Private Eye, Guardian test. If one or more of the above were to get in touch with you personally, with an innocent request to clarify a couple of almost certainly unfounded allegations about one or two of your people, would you be wholly sanguine about inviting them in?

I’ve recently been promoted to managing director of my agency. I was obviously delighted, thinking this would bring me new opportunities and respect, but have now found out that the job was not the dream that I was after. In fact, I spend most of my time resolving what the variety of crisps and soft drinks should be in the staff vending machine. Have I just been sold a pup or is this what managing directors are expected to do?

Once upon a time, the managing director of an agency was the person who ran the joint. Then a lot of managing directors decided that chief executive sounded more manly and, what’s more, Americans thought that managing director meant manager – and everyone knew that all managers did was decide what variety of crisps and soft drinks should be in the staff vending machine. So agencies, too, started appointing chief executives – but, reluctant as always to waste a good title (so much more cost-efficient than money), they kept managing directors on as managers: which, you may remember, is what some people thought they were when they weren’t. I think you’ll find this is why your judgment is required on the critical question of crisps and soft drinks.

"Ask Jeremy", a collection of Jeremy Bullmore’s Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10. Telephone (020) 8267 4919.

Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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